In this companion to the award-winning Darius the Great Is Not Okay, Darius suddenly has it all: a boyfriend, an internship, a spot on the soccer team. It's everything he's ever wanted--but what if he deserves better?
Darius Kellner is having a bit of a year. Since his trip to Iran, a lot has changed. He's getting along with his dad, and his best friend Sohrab is only a Skype call away. Between his first boyfriend, Landon, varsity soccer practices, and an internship at his favorite tea shop, things are falling into place.
Then, of course, everything changes. Darius's grandmothers are in town for a long visit, and Darius can't tell whether they even like him. The internship is not going according to plan, Sohrab isn't answering Darius's calls, and Dad is far away on business. And Darius is sure he really likes Landon . . . but he's also been hanging out with Chip Cusumano, former bully and current soccer teammate--and well, maybe he's not so sure about anything after all.
Darius was just starting to feel okay, like he finally knew what it meant to be Darius Kellner. But maybe okay isn't good enough. Maybe Darius deserves better.
Release date: August 25, 2020
Publisher: Dial Books
Print pages: 352
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Darius the Great Deserves Better
The History of Creation
The first cut is always the hardest.
I met Mikaela’s eyes in the mirror.
The clippers buzzed to life and growled in my ear as she pushed the teeth through the back of my hair. The curls tickled my neck as they fell to the floor.
It was tradition among the student athletes on Chapel Hill High School’s varsity men’s soccer team (Go Chargers!) to get their hair cut before the first game of the season. It was supposed to promote team unity.
Except I had my internship at Rose City Teas on Sunday when everyone else got their haircuts, so I had to make a separate appointment.
It was my first haircut in two years.
“How high do you want this fade?” Mikaela asked as she neared my ears.
I’d never met Mikaela before, but Landon recommended her. She was beautiful, with brown skin, impeccable box braids, and the brightest smile I’d ever seen.
I shrugged, but I wasn’t sure she could tell from under the plastic cover. “I don’t know,” I said. “What do you think would look best?”
She turned off the clippers and looked at me in the mirror for a second. “Probably something higher for you. Show off these beautiful curls up top.”
I relaxed and let her turn my head this way and that as she worked, first with clippers and then with a pair of scissors. When she was done, Mikaela took me to the hair-washing station. I guess it wasn’t designed for tall people: I had to scoot my butt to the edge of the chair to fit my head in the basin. But she washed my hair and massaged my scalp (which was just about the nicest thing I had ever felt) and got all the itchy bits off, and then it was back to the chair for styling.
“You use product?”
I shook my head.
She pulled at one of my curls—she hadn’t touched the top, except for a little trimming—and twisted it around her finger.
“Landon said you’re . . . Indian?”
“Sorry.” She let the curl fall. “Lucky boy.”
My cheeks warmed.
Mikaela squeezed something that smelled like coconuts into her hands and massaged it into my hair. It made it a little shinier but kept it soft. She took one last lock from the very front and pulled it down into my forehead, so it dangled like a little question mark.
I studied myself in the mirror. Instead of my usual messy halo, I had a huge pile of curls up top, but the sides and back of my head faded from super short black hair down to my skin.
I hadn’t seen the sides of my head in years.
I’d never noticed how much my ears stuck out.
“It looks great,” I said, even though I was kind of anxious about my ears. “Really.”
“Yeah it does,” Mikaela said. “Let’s go ring you up.”
Landon was waiting for me up front. He got this big goofy smile on his face when he saw me.
I smiled and looked down to open the Velcro on my wallet.
“You like it?”
“I really do.”
Landon’s hand brushed mine, and I curled my thumb to trap it. He wove our fingers together and led me out the sliding glass doors.
It was one of Portland’s perfect fall days, where it was warm enough that you didn’t have to wear your hoodie, but cool enough that it was cozy if you did.
(I had on my hoodie.)
“Isn’t Mikaela the best?”
“Yeah.” I pressed my ear flat against the side of my head with my left hand. “I didn’t realize I had such huge Ferengi ears.”
“Your ears are cute.” He pulled me to a stop and stood on his toes to give me a kiss on the cheek. “But what’s a Ferengi?”
The first time Landon kissed me, we had eaten at Northwest Dumplings after closing up shop at Rose City, and I’d been nervous, because I’d never kissed anyone before. And at the time, we were still just hanging out. I didn’t go in expecting to kiss him, which is why I made the extremely unfortunate choice of having too many onions at dinner.
When Landon leaned in close, I thought maybe I had something in my teeth. Because I never thought someone like him would want to kiss someone like me.
But then he took my hand. And he said, “Hey. Can I kiss you?”
And I was kind of surprised and amazed, because I really liked Landon, and I really did want him to kiss me.
I wanted my first kiss to be with Landon Edwards.
His lips were warm and soft, and he let them linger against mine. But then I made the mistake of sighing, which blew a noxious cloud of onion breath into his mouth.
He broke the kiss and giggled.
I panicked at first—I thought I had messed everything up—but he smiled at me. He squeezed my hand and said, “That was good. Even with the onions. Can we do it again?”
So we did, and the kissing got even better once we started using our tongues.
But my favorite part was the way Landon looked at me after and said, “You’re beautiful, you know.”
No one had ever called me beautiful before.
“You’re beautiful too.”
I’d gotten better about food choices since then. And keeping breath mints in my messenger bag.
“Come on. The streetcar should be here.”
But then, as we turned the corner, my stomach dropped.
Chip Cusumano and Trent Bolger were walking down the street, jostling each other and laughing about something.
Cyprian Cusumano was the strangest guy I knew. He used to be kind of mean to me, but ever since the end of sophomore year, he’d turned around and been nicer.
We’d actually become friends.
I mean, it helped that we both played on the Chapel Hill High School varsity men’s soccer team (Go Chargers!). It was the first year on the team for both of us—Chip used to play football in the fall—but we’d both managed to get spots on the varsity squad.
Trent Bolger, on the other hand, was the meanest guy I knew. He’d been picking on me since elementary school.
And yet for some strange reason—some Byzantine logic that defied explanation—Chip and Trent were best friends.
Landon must have noticed it when my shoulders hunched up, because his step faltered. Which is exactly when Chip looked up from his phone and caught my eye.
He looked from me to Landon, and then down at our linked hands, and then back to me.
Chip already knew I was gay—the whole team knew, since I told them at one of our team-building things when training started over the summer—but I was pretty sure Trent did not.
In fact, I was certain Trent did not, because when he saw me and Landon, he looked like Christmas had come early.
“You know those guys?” Landon asked.
“Yeah. From school. I play with the taller one.”
Chip had grown at least an inch over the summer. He was almost as tall as me now, and I had plateaued at six three over the summer.
I kind of hoped I would hit six four eventually.
“Hey, Darius.” Chip grinned at me. Cyprian Cusumano was one of those guys who always seemed to be grinning. He wore a pair of black Adidas joggers—the same kind I wore, with the white stripes down the sides and the tapered calves—and a plain white V-neck T-shirt.
“Thanks. You too.”
Chip always had nice haircuts. He was a Level Eight Influencer at Chapel Hill High School: Whatever haircut he got, about half the guys in our class ended up doing some variation of it. Now that he was doing the Standard Soccer Team Fade, though, I wasn’t sure what everyone else would do.
“Oh. Chip, this is my—”
The thing is, Landon and I hadn’t talked about whether we were officially boyfriends. Even if it felt like we kind of were.
How did you ask a guy if you were officially boyfriends?
“This is Landon. Landon, Chip. And that’s Trent.”
Trent was hanging back, playing with his phone. He wore a crimson sweatshirt that read property of chhs varsity football—he’d finally made the varsity team this year, as a something-back—and a pair of black swishy shorts.
Chip was still grinning, but he looked Landon up and down. Almost like he was judging him. “Nice to meet you.” He held out his fist.
Landon blinked for a second and then bumped his own with Chip’s.
It was the most awkward fist bump in the history of creation.
“Well,” I squeaked. I cleared my throat. “We’ve gotta catch the streetcar. See you later?”
Chip bumped fists with me too. “Yeah. See you.”
I stepped to the side so he and Trent could make it past us and tightened my grip on Landon’s hand.
“Later, Dairy Queen,” Trent said.
Zero Point Six Eight Seconds
Rose City Teas was in the Northwest District, a couple stops down the streetcar line from Mikaela’s salon. It was a brick building with ivy growing up one side, and a little wooden sign hanging over the door. Big windows made up one wall, with the shades half-drawn against the afternoon sun. In the corner, shelves of tea tins lined one wall, and opposite it, the tasting bar was packed with afternoon customers.
Rose City Teas was a dream come true.
Landon’s dad waved from the door to the tasting room, wiped his hands on the towel he always kept over his shoulder, and came to greet us.
He squeezed Landon’s shoulder—he and Landon had never hugged each other in front of me, which I thought was kind of weird—and then squeezed mine too.
“Hey, son. Looking sharp, Darius. How’re you doing?”
“Thanks, Mr. E. I’m okay. How about you?”
“B-plus, A-minus,” he said with a wink.
Elliott Edwards had the same gray eyes as his son. And the same auburn hair, though his thick eyebrows and well-kept beard were more brownish. And I couldn’t say for sure, but I suspected that underneath his beard he had the same excellent cheekbones as Landon too.
Landon Edwards had television cheekbones. They were angular and beautiful and always looked like he was blushing. Just a tiny bit.
“I thought you were going to Darius’s tonight?”
“I am,” Landon said.
We were still holding hands.
I really liked holding Landon’s hand.
“We were close. Thought we might as well stop by.”
“Well, perfect timing. Come try this. Polli, can you handle things?”
Polli was one of the managers at Rose City. She was an older white lady—probably about my grandmothers’ age—who always wore all black except for her scarves, which were wildly colorful, and her glasses, which were huge neon-yellow squares.
She seemed like the kind of person who should have been a judge on some kind of reality show. Or owned an antique bookshop, where she catalogued and dispensed esoteric knowledge while sipping espressos from tiny cups.
Polli waved at us and kept talking to a customer about the benefits of local honey.
Mr. Edwards led us into the tasting room, a small room partitioned from the main dining room by a frosted glass wall with the Rose City logo etched into it. The table was set with a row of gaiwans, full of damp, bright green leaves; and in front of those, tasting cups full of steaming emerald liquor.
“Here.” He handed us both ceramic spoons. I let Landon go first, dipping his spoon into each cup one by one and slurping up the tea. It was a robust, grassy green.
“Oh, wow,” I said when I tasted the third one, which had this burst of something—maybe fruity?—on the finish.
Mr. E’s eyebrows danced. “Right? Any guesses?”
“Hm.” I tasted number four, but number three was definitely the best. “Gyokuro?”
Gyokuro was a green tea from Japan, famous for being shaded for three weeks before plucking, which made it taste sweeter and smoother.
“Close. It’s Kabusecha.”
“It’s like Gyokuro but with only a week of shading.”
I took another slurp of number three.
Mr. Edwards smiled. “I thought you’d like it.”
“Are you gonna get some?”
He sighed and shook his head. “Too pricey to be worth it.”
One of the things I’d learned from interning at Rose City was, sometimes the best teas weren’t the most practical for a business.
I guess I understood that.
“You want the rest?” He grabbed a paper pouch covered in Japanese writing.
“All right,” Landon said. “We’d better go. Pick me up at nine?”
“Sure. Have fun. Make smart choices. Be safe.”
“Don’t be weird.”
Mr. Edwards just laughed as Landon led me out.
Dad’s car was gone when I punched in the code to the garage door.
I untied my black Sambas and stuck them in the shoe rack while the door rumbled shut behind us.
Landon kicked off his shoes and slotted them next to mine, then followed me into the living room.
“Sorry it’s kind of a mess,” I said, even though I’d vacuumed over the weekend.
I checked the fridge for a note or something.
“My dad was supposed to be home.”
I sent him a text to ask where he was.
Landon had come over before, but Mom or Dad had always been home.
The back of my neck prickled.
I checked all the counters, and the table too, but there was no sign of where Dad had gone, just a pile of dishes in the sink. As soon as Landon saw them, he rolled up his sleeves and started washing them.
“I can do those,” I said.
“I like doing them.”
“I’ll dry, then.”
I stood next to Landon, taking plates and bowls and glasses and drying them with one of the blue-and-white tea towels Mom seemed to have an endless supply of.
Our dishwasher had broken over the summer, and with Mom and Dad’s savings depleted from our trip to Iran, we hadn’t been able to replace it.
Who knew Shirin Kellner’s tea towel collection would prove so useful?
After I dried the last plate, Landon took the towel from me and wiped up the sink and counters and backsplash. He looked up at me. “You okay?”
What did you do when you were home alone with the guy you were seeing, and there were no more chores to do?
I grabbed my messenger bag off the chair. “I guess I better put this away.”
Landon followed me up the stairs. My pulse pounded against my eardrums.
“Your face is all red.”
“Oh.” I swallowed. “It’s just. Dad didn’t leave a note or anything. And we’ve never been alone like this before.”
Landon sat on my bed. I hung my bag on the hook in my closet and turned to face him.
“And I feel like maybe we should be kissing or something.”
Landon laughed at that. “We don’t have to if you don’t want to. We can just talk.”
“I like kissing you, though.”
Landon smiled and bit his lip.
“I like kissing you too.”
He brought his hand up to my face, and then ran his fingers along the edges of my fade. I hadn’t had bare skin there in a long time, and it made me tingle all over.
I really liked that.
I also really liked how Landon was very slow and deliberate with his lips. He had the fullest lips I’d ever seen on a white guy.
I didn’t like it as much when Landon put his other hand on my stomach, because I had to suck in my gut, and that made it a little harder to breathe and still keep up with the kissing.
I did like how it felt when my tongue met his. How careful he was with it.
But then I didn’t like it when Landon moved his hand lower, and his fingertips brushed the skin beneath my waistband.
I couldn’t tell if he was doing it on purpose or not, but I didn’t know how to stop him. Especially since, like I said, I really did like the kissing part a great deal, and to say something I would have had to stop.
And then, of course, I didn’t like it at all when Dad popped his head into my room.
“Darius, can you come help me with Lal—oh.”
Landon yelped as I accidentally bit down on his tongue. We sprang apart.
I covered my lap with my hands.
“Oh.” Dad’s face was at Red Alert. He looked down the hall. His eyes flicked back to my face and then away again. “Sorry.”
My own face was at Red Alert too.
“Your sister got sick at gymnastics. I had to pick her up early.”
“Oh.” Normally Laleh had gymnastics classes on Tuesday evenings, and got a ride home with one of her friends’ parents.
“Can you come downstairs? When you’re, ah, decent?”
My face burned even hotter.
Being caught making out by my father had deflated my indecency in zero point six eight seconds.
“Yeah,” I croaked.
Dad closed the door behind him.
“Sorry,” I said. “Are you okay?”
“Yeah. But I didn’t know you were a biter.”
I tried to smile. But then, I don’t know why, I wanted to cry a little bit.
I’d switched medications for my depression over the summer, and while I mostly liked the new prescription, and felt ten to twenty percent better on average, sometimes I got very overwhelmed and wanted to cry.
“Hey. It’s okay.” Landon swiped a tear off my cheek.
“I know.” I mean, obviously my parents already knew about Landon and me. They’d seen us kiss before.
But not kiss kiss.
“I know.” I took another breath. “I’m gonna help my dad. You wanna stay here?”
“Nah, I’ll come help too.”
One of the best things about Landon Edwards was how good he was in the kitchen.
Not just doing dishes: He was an awesome cook too.
While Dad took Laleh upstairs to get changed, I washed and peeled vegetables for Landon, who chopped them to make chicken noodle soup.
“What’s this?” He pulled down an unlabeled mason jar of brown spice and unscrewed the lid.
“Careful,” I said, but it was too late. Landon took a sniff, which led to a cascade sinus failure.
“It’s my mom’s advieh.”
“Like a family spice mix. For Persian cooking.”
He shook out a handful and tossed it in with the onions and carrots, then got to work chopping celery.
While Landon cooked, I set the table and watched him work. He had become so comfortable in our kitchen, it was like he lived there. He had this soft smile, and he hummed as he pulled apart leftover chicken breast to add it to the pot.
As Landon worked, Dad came down the stairs, his ears red.
“Hey, boys,” he said. He leaned down to kiss my forehead. “Wow. Your hair looks great.”
“Hey, Stephen,” Landon said.
“Sorry for surprising you.”
“It’s all good.” Landon rummaged through the spice cabinet and pulled out the bag of bay leaves sitting in the back.
I didn’t know how he could be so cool about everything.
I couldn’t meet Dad’s eyes.
“Is Laleh okay?”
“I hope it’s not strep again. Be sure to wash your hands plenty.”
“And thanks for making soup, Landon. It smells good.”
Laleh eventually made her way downstairs in her green pajamas and poured herself into her seat at the kitchen table.
I kissed her head. “Hey, Laleh.”
She made the kind of dramatic groan I usually associated with adults who hadn’t had their coffee in the morning.
Sometimes it was hard to tell if my sister was nine or thirty-nine.
“Sorry you’re not feeling well.”
“Thanks,” she said. Her voice was hoarse and throaty.
“Landon’s making soup for you.”
“Yum,” she said, but with none of her usual manic enthusiasm for Landon’s cooking.
By eight o’clock, the soup was done, and Mom was finally home from work. She and Dad had been working a lot more hours since our trip to Iran.
Mom looked so tired, it was hard to decide who needed soup more, her or Laleh. But as soon as she tasted it, she smiled.
“This is good, Landon,” she said. “You made it in an hour?”
“Yeah. Well, you had good chicken for it.”
Like I said, Landon was a great cook. I think that’s the main reason he won Mom over.
It’s not like Shirin Kellner was mad or upset when I told her I was gay.
And it’s not like she was weird about me and Landon hanging out.
But sometimes there was this tension between us, some perturbation in the gravity of our orbits, that I couldn’t figure out.
At least Landon could cook.
Every Persian mother wants her son to marry someone who can cook.
To be clear, I was not considering marriage, to Landon or anyone else. But cooking skills are an absolute requirement in prospective partners as far as Iranian parents are concerned.
“Landon found your advieh,” I said.
“It’s Mamou’s recipe. My mother,” she said to Landon. “She used to mix it up in a big mortar and pestle.”
“I miss Mamou,” Laleh said between slurps of noodle. “I wish we could go see her again.”
The table got kind of quiet.
I think we all wished that.
The thing is, we only went to Iran last spring because Babou—my grandfather—had a brain tumor. He was dying. And Mom wanted us to meet him before it was too late.
“I wish we could go again too,” Mom said at last.
She turned back to me and ran her finger along the edge of my fade, where it met the long curls up top.
“I can’t believe you finally got a haircut.”
The Grand Nagus
I was finishing up my homework when Dad knocked on my open door frame.
“You got a minute?”
He closed the door behind him and sat on my bed.
“So.” He rubbed his palms on his knees. “I know we’ve talked some about dating. And sex. And consent. But I figured we had better revisit.”
My face burned.
“I know it’s awkward. But it’s important, Darius.”
I spun my desk chair around and hunched over with my elbows on my knees.
“But, I mean.” I swallowed. “Nothing’s changed since the last time we talked.”
That was over the summer, right after Landon and I had our first onion-tinged kiss.
We’d had talks before that too. Like when I was eight, and about to have a baby sister, and asked where babies came from. And again, after Sex Ed in middle school.
The worst was when I was thirteen and woke up with sticky sheets.
It was the most painfully awkward conversation in me and Dad’s catalogue of painfully awkward conversations, and before our trip to Iran that was pretty much all our conversations.
To be honest, even after Iran—after there were no more walls between us—talking about sex was still awkward.
Dad cleared his throat. “Landon didn’t have his hand under your pants when I walked in?”
“No,” I said.
And then I said, “I mean, he hadn’t gotten very far.”
And then I said, “And I don’t really know if I want to do that kind of stuff yet.”
Dad nodded. “Okay. You know it’s healthy and normal if you do. And healthy and normal if you don’t. Right?”
I nodded and stared at my feet.
Dad let out a slow breath. “Did you tell him?”
I shook my head. “We were kissing.”
“Okay.” He stared out my window for a second. The curtains were open, and dusk was settling over the neighborhood like a blanket. “First, it’s okay to hit pause on kissing so you can communicate. Relationships, or even just casual, you know, whatevers, need communication. And second, if you don’t know what to say, you can use your hands to guide his. So if you don’t want them . . . uh . . . in your pants, you can gently guide him to somewhere better, like your back or your knee or whatever.”
Dad gave me a shaky grin.
As hard as it was to have conversations like this, he never made it seem like he didn’t want to do it.
“Have you ever talked to Landon about his past relationships?”
“A little,” I said.
“Did you talk about how intimate they were?”
That made me feel a little sick to my stomach.
“Some,” I said.
Landon told me he’d done more with girls than with guys. That he had his first kiss in sixth grade.
Sometimes I wished I’d started dating sooner. Maybe then I would’ve had some practice at all this.
Maybe then I would’ve known what to do and what to say.
Dad ran his hand through his hair.
“Does it make you nervous, that Landon’s more experienced?”
“No. Maybe. I don’t know.”
“I know this isn’t fun to talk about with your dad,” he said. “But I want you to be healthy and safe and happy. Okay?”
“I know,” I said.
“Good. Okay. Good.” He took a deep breath. “Next time, just tell him you’d like things to go a little slower. Let him know you enjoy, uh, kissing and stuff, and you want to wait for the rest.”
Dad patted his legs and stood up. He kissed me on top of my head and then rubbed the back of it. “I forgot you had skin back there,” he said.
“Ears too. I look like the Grand Nagus.”
Dad snorted. The Grand Nagus was the leader of the Ferengi, this alien race with huge ears and an obsession with profit.
“You’re perfect just the way you are,” Dad said.
“Now finish up your homework so we can watch some Deep Space Nine.”
Most mornings I went for a run before my shower.
I don’t know that I actually liked running.
It wasn’t so bad when we ran at practice, and the guys were there, and we could shout and laugh and egg each other on. But there was something about being all alone with my thoughts, in the rosy morning light, that made me kind of sad.
Still, I wanted to improve my speed.
And, if I’m being completely honest, I hoped it would help me lose weight, so maybe I could look more like the rest of the guys on the team, who were pretty much all lean and long-limbed and flat-stomached.
Maybe then I wouldn’t have to suck in my stomach when Landon touched me.
The house was quiet when I got home. Mom’s car was already gone, Laleh was still in bed, and Dad’s door was closed.
It was weird, taking a shower with so much less hair. Way quicker. When I was dry, I rubbed in some of the curl cream Mikaela had recommended.
My hair looked nice. Really nice.
I got dressed and sat at my computer to call Sohrab.
It rang and rang—well, it made that weird doot-doot-doot music—and then:
I heard Sohrab’s heavily compressed voice before I saw his face, which emerged from the Pixelated Black Void.
Sohrab Rezaei was my best friend in the whole world.
I hated that he lived half a world
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